New Providence mayor: Economy, schools top agenda

By Michelle R. Smith

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Dec. 30 2010 2:49 p.m. MST

In this Dec. 13, 2010 photograph, Providence Mayor-elect Angle Taveras hands his papers to an aid after addressing the Ocean State Consortium of Advanced Resources (OSCAR) conference at Brown University in Providence, R.I. Taveras will become the city's first Hispanic mayor when he's sworn in Monday, Jan. 3, 2011.

Stephan Savoia, Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Angel Taveras says he has four priorities once he becomes mayor of Rhode Island's capital: finances, the economy, education and crime.

Taveras, who'll become Providence's first Hispanic mayor when he's sworn in Monday, takes over from two-term mayor and fellow Democrat David Cicilline, who has tried to shed the city's image of corruption that flourished under former Mayor Buddy Cianci, sent to federal prison for corruption in 2002.

Taveras says he'll continue Cicilline's work and has laid out an ambitious agenda for improving schools, reducing crime, spurring jobs and whipping into order the finances of the city, which has been operating without an approved budget for six months.

"You have to understand the history of Providence and how far we've come over the last eight years and moving the city forward," Taveras, 40, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "I'm a person, and I'll be a mayor who can be everyone's mayor."

Taveras, a lawyer and former city housing court judge, won the three-way September Democratic primary with 49 percent of the vote and went on to win the general election against a poorly funded independent with 82 percent.

Taveras, who's fluent in English and Spanish and speaks some French, lives on the line of the Mount Pleasant and Elmhurst neighborhoods, a middle-class area. He campaigned across all areas of the city and won 11 of 15 wards in the primary. In contrast, Cicilline, who is Italian, Jewish and openly gay and is the son of a prominent defense attorney, was seen as having a base of support in the city's wealthy East Side but not a broad coalition across many neighborhoods of the city.

During the campaign, Taveras spoke often about his personal story, hitting the oft-repeated theme of "Head Start to Harvard."

He was born in New York City to parents who immigrated from the Dominican Republic, and he was an infant when his family moved to Providence. His parents divorced when he was young, and he grew up on the impoverished South Side. He attended the city's magnet Classical High School, then went to Harvard University as an undergraduate and to Georgetown University's law school.

Taveras ran for Congress in 2000 but lost in the primary to now-Rep. Jim Langevin. He specializes in election law and has worked for Democrats and Republicans, including one-time presidential candidate and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, of North Carolina.

Taveras inherits a city with an unclear financial picture. The city has no approved budget for the fiscal year that started July 1 and was forced to close a $50 million gap in a $616 million budget last year, in part due to cuts in state aid, by raising taxes and taking other unpopular steps.

Cicilline, who ran for and won the congressional seat being vacated by eight-term Rep. Patrick Kennedy, called Taveras very skilled and smart and said he has every confidence he'll be a great mayor.

But he said state budget cuts have created challenges for Taveras, particularly getting things done with limited resources.

"Providence, like every city and town, is faced with challenges as a result of the economic downturn," Cicilline said. "He has to navigate through all the different financial crises of the state budget."

Taveras said making sure there's a balanced budget is priority No. 1 and the city needs to take a hard look at places to cut.

"It's unlikely we're going to be getting any help from the state," he said.

Taveras says the city must look seriously at health care and pension costs. He said all options are on the table for the pension, including switching to a hybrid system similar to the one used by the federal government.

He also has met with representatives from the city's universities and hospitals, which are exempt from paying property taxes, to make clear he wants to reopen discussions about them making voluntary payments to the city. Cicilline struck such a deal with universities in his first term, but Taveras says it's time to revisit the agreement and to include hospitals.

"We are codependent," he said. "We need our universities and hospitals. They've been the area of growth. They need the city to be successful."

Taveras says he sees the city's so-called Knowledge District as an area of economic growth, with lots of possibilities for development as a swath of land becomes available with the relocation of Interstate 195.

On education, he said he'd build on work done by the Cicilline administration, such as a stronger teacher evaluation system, designed to improve schools, some of which have been designated by the state as failing. He's also interested in the bread-and-butter issues of fixing potholes and lowering crime and says he wants to take on environmental issues, such as instituting a composting program.

"I would like Providence to be seen as a model for progress in terms of economic development, education, the environment, city services," he said. "I want to be a mayor who makes it happen."

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